PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi is recommending the state appeal a federal judge’s ruling regarding the constitutionality of truck tolls on major highways.
U.S. District Judge William Smith issued a decision Wednesday that the tolling program violates the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause, as well as federal law.
Smith barred the state from continuing to charge or collect tolls, which prompted the R.I. Department of Transportation (RIDOT) to turn off the tolling gantries to comply with the ruling.
The decision was a win for the trucking industry, which hailed Smith’s ruling.
“We told Rhode Island’s leaders from the start that their crazy scheme was not only discriminatory, but illegal,” Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, said in a statement. “To any state looking to target our industry, you better bring your A-game … because we’re not rolling over.”
The truck tolls were a key part of then-Gov. Gina Raimondo’s RhodeWorks transportation funding plan, enacted in 2016, which sought to improve the condition of Rhode Island’s worst-in-the-nation bridges. The tolling program specifically levied charges on heavy trucks at multiple locations.
American Trucking Associations, Cumberland Farms and other businesses filed the suit in 2018, arguing that it was unconstitutional for the state to single out one class of vehicles and exempt others. Raimondo insisted at the time that her administration had commissioned a legal analysis showing it was legal.
Smith initially dismissed the suit in 2019, but his decision was reversed by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later that year, which eventually led to a trial this spring that resulted in Wednesday’s ruling.
Shekarchi told 12 News Thursday he thinks the state should appeal the judge’s decision.
“I expect that decision to be appealed,” he said.
Gov. Dan McKee wouldn’t commit to appealing the decision, but assured Rhode Islanders that tolling passenger cars on state highways is off the table.
“Anybody who thinks that we are going to be tolling cars … it’s not going to be under my watch. Let’s be very clear,” he said.
The truck tolls have brought in roughly $100 million since they started being collected in 2018, though the program’s annual revenue has yet to meet the original goal of $45 million a year.
Toll revenue still makes up a relatively small share of RIDOT’s annual budget, which is $797 million this year. More than half of that spending is federally funded.
It’s unclear how the state will make up that lost revenue. RIDOT Director Peter Alviti told 12 News the state is looking at ways to reduce spending to prevent a budget shortfall.
“The [options are] to reduce the number of projects or prolong them into the future,” Alviti said. “We are looking at all of those options right now.”
When it comes to the projects already underway, Alviti said the state plans to finish them.
“We’re going to continue that work in the [short term],” Alviti said. “That gives us time to make decisions on how we move forward after that.”
The state’s Republican lawmakers, who have been critical of the tolling program from the start, are urging McKee not to appeal the ruling.
Ted Nesi contributed to this report.